Need a Challenging Perspective?

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Just as Steve Van Matre’s book Earth Education: a new beginning instigated nature educators in the 20th century to review their work and actions, his most recent book Interpretive Design and the Dance of Experience (IDADE) again reimagines our roles. The author challenges us, on behalf of the visitor, to improve our catalyst and matchmaking skills, convey purposeful anticipation, choreograph a dance of discovery, and disappear.                                                                                 

Based on decades of observations and contemplations visiting our public jewels (referred to in the book as preservation, collection and recognition sites), the author lays out an intentful, immersive, and inspiring form of interpretive structure that aims to illuminate the vision behind our public treasures. This proposed organizational framework is not just for imparting intended messages but also for hosting, inviting, and motivating people to explore their special places and uncover natural and cultural universal processes.

In the spirit of continuous improvement, IDADE builds and greatly expands on the foundation that Freeman Tilden supplied in his book Interpreting our Heritage.

IDADE is about leveraging design to drive enrichment and to dance at the point of experience. The book presents implementation outcomes beyond information transfer that involve a coaching of process, invitation and practice.

The book contains 15 developmental steps that assist in setting the stage and being prepared for the visitors’ arrival. Twenty-five elements of a deeper interpretive experience are detailed in the book along with the description of the invaluable "Atlas of Experience" planning and design compendium. There are 16 sets of pointers and tools along with many practical design exercises including 2 interpretive matrices.

This is not a quick and easy read so be prepared for constant reflection and re-evaluation. The attention to visual design details and the refreshing rainbow - infused publishing style keeps you alert. Chock full of insights and critical viewpoints, Van Matre believes this is a time for bold action and independent thinking mixed with large helpings of skepticism and curiosity. The book is interspersed with red bolded sentences like:

“Interpretation is not so much experience explained as explanation experienced.”
“We remember what we feel and feel what we remember.”

I refer to them as magical mind mirrors - perplexing perspective word reversals- that constantly stop you in your tracks and tickle the brain cells.

IDADE is a convention- challenging book and could easily have had a similar review as did  The Anarchists Guide to Historic House Museums book, where it was stated that, “If you are a traditionalist you might think that (authors) Vagnone and Ryan are heretics, blasphemers or at the very least bomb throwers.  Many of the ideas go against the standard rules of museum practice.” IDADE throws bombs and will ignite your mind with mini-explosions of experiential heretical wisdom by going head-to-head with conversational interpretation.

I have to share with you urban planner Jane Jacob’s introduction to her book that I recently read as a word of friendly advice. “I urge readers to retain prudent skepticism and to remain protective of their individual judgements and experiences, a caution that applies, or should apply, to alert reading of any work … this book is no different in that respect, of course. If anything, it is more demanding than other (economic) texts because both its substance and form are unconventional.” (a chapter excerpt from a compilation work known as Vital Little Plan : The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, ed. Zipp & Storring].

The same advice should be applied to IDADE with its unconventional substance and form for sure. Alert reading you bet, because this is not a romp in the park but requires a slow consideration of viewpoints. This book encourages us to think differently, to challenge conventional procedures, and to take risks.

Stay the course for all 317 pages and you hopefully will have rocked your status quo boat, without swamping your vessel.

Interpreteer Bill’s book review first appeared in InterpNews on pg. 57, but is also reproduced below in its entirety, so keep reading.
 


Book Review:

Interpretive Design and the Dance of Experience

By Steve Van Metre
Institute for Earth Education, 2009.   ISBN:978-0-917011-23-8
Purchase options for Interpretive Design and the Dance of Experience can be found here.

Caution: Don’t read this book unless you are prepared to re-evaluate, reflect, and re-organize the interpretive framework you use.


If you knew a book was going to help you practice the art of seduction would you pick it up- would you grasp that this was essential to the interpreter’s role in design?  As Van Matre exclaims, there is no lack of passion in this field, it just needs solid structure to accomplish experiential transformation.

Visitor connection means belonging, relating and comprehending

The book offers a new way to look at the basis for an interpretive foundation and structure, challenging the prevalent dependence on themes to perform this role. Themes can perform well as delivery organizers but have not performed well as the framework to accomplish special place outcomes.

The world’s jewels, as the author states, are being looked after for all the earth’s passengers’ benefit. The task is to ensure visitors leave caring about the place, not just to provide visitors a good time. Interpretive design aims at developing that sense of belonging, relating, and comprehending in visitor, in order to share with others. This book is about how to engage that bodyset and mindset holistically - a very critical skill in the times ahead.

The author lays out an intentful, immersive, and inspiring form of interpretive structure that aims to illuminate the vision behind our public treasures. This proposed organizational framework is not just for imparting intended messages but for hosting, inviting, practicing, and motivating people to explore their special place and uncover universal processes.

If you are responsible to care for, share and celebrate life’s ecological and cultural treasures then you should be adding the Institute for Earth Education's Steve Van Matre‘s book Interpretive Design and the Dance of Experience to your shelf for inspiration (and a tad of frustration). Just as Steve's Earth Education: a NEW BEGINNING instigated nature educators to review their work over the last 2 decades, Interpretive Design again challenges our roles. It stresses the importance of activity over words, processes of life over the pieces of life, and experiential coaching over guiding. This sentence appears many times throughout the book:

“ Interpretive design is planning enriching interactions that will produce intended outcomes.”

Innovative approach - Beyond Tilden’s Principles

Van Matre challenges you, on behalf of the visitor, to:

  • Craft an invitation
  • Be place – centred
  • Improve your catalyst and matchmaking skills
  • Convey purposeful anticipation
  • Choreograph a dance of discovery
  • Disappear…

Freeman Tilden, often considered the Father of Interpretation, created 6 principles in the 50’s that have been a foundation for the profession. The Dance of Experience builds and greatly expands on the foundation that Tilden supplied, in the spirit of continuous improvement.

A prevailing business philosophy is the belief that all innovation comes from pissed off people, which often compels entrepreneurs to redesign the poorly performing customer experience. The innovative interpretive approach being offered in this book has had a similar genesis. The wake up call quote from Tom Peters‘ Re-Imagine book : “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less,” is apropos when considering Van Matre’s expressed concern regarding the interpretive profession.

By addressing the element of design and the realm of experience so prevalent in the social and business world today, Van Matre brings interpretation into the new millenium. Our society is well entrenched into leveraging design to drive profit at the point of sale –this book is about leveraging design to drive enrichment and to dance at the point of experience. The focus on dance the author is referring to, is about capitalizing on the inherent energy a visitor brings to our public treasures. The concept of dance Van Matre uses may seem abit foreign or ‘out there” for those in a site management or communication role, but don’t let this be a barrier to discovering the gems behind this provocative positioning.

He advocates for building on the visitor‘s proclivity to flow or dance upon site arrival and to channel that energy of anticipation directly, into discovery, experience and even love. Working with this excited state translates into helping the visitor dance with the place not sit, stand or be herded.

“ Interpretive design is planning enriching interactions that will produce intended outcomes.”

Experiential sweet spot: re-define, re-imagine, and re-boot

Business literature dealing with the experience economy, stresses the need for customers to be exposed to the passive and active experience continuum, while blending with the absorption to immersion spectrum. This produces 4 realms of estheticism, escapism, entertainment, and education with a sweet spot of engagement and money extraction when you intersect all.

This interpretive design treatise reflects these needs and addresses them in a more down –to –earth, conversational, values-driven and purposeful way. You are not exposed to any academic bafflegab- no cognitive or affective domains on these pages. Van Matre wants us to strive for the sweet spot that assists every visitor to have a meaningful, memorable, tangible, and flavourful experience that supports the site’s mission.

The above expressed sweet spot, departs from interpretive literature that has often stressed the motivating outcomes of:

  • Responsible behaviour change in the way management wants,
  • Making the visitor care,”
  • Evaluative recall of thematic packaged information having been effectively transferred.
  • The expansive treatment offered in this book, of the know-feel-do objectives sought by many interpretive approaches, reaches beyond the basic grasp of these elements. The book presents implementation outcomes beyond information transfer that involve a coaching of process, invitation and practice.

The reader is treated to a serious yet playful redefining, re-imagining and rebooting of the classic approach to resource, site, visitor, message and media analysis. I have seen some interpretive program statements that have also included an experience analysis which gets closer to what is being espoused in Van Matre’s seven chapters.  The design focus is on the encounter, as expressed eloquently by the author in a Zen-like manner as simply: 

  • A visitor
  • A place
  • An enrichment

Role of experiential coaching

The target being aimed for is to:

  • Assist the visitor to be and receive, not be told
  • Uncover and share what has been hidden, not cover the subject
  • Expose storylines and stimulate storymaking, not be a storyteller 
  • Help visitors find good seats.

The goal being stressed is effective visitor immersion in the essence of your mission driven site or facility. The focus is on experiential coaching. The emphasis is on what visitors DO.  Concrete examples are provided to illustrate the experiential coaching role of the interpreter as a narrator, stage manager, and prop assistant. Improvisational theatre techniques have always emphasized sharing over telling as the audience loves to figure things out when the performer leaves a trail of bread crumbs for them and they get to participate. This sense of co-discovery is the craft of the excellent interpretive designer.

“ Interpretive design is planning enriching interactions that will produce intended outcomes.”

As Van Matre proclaims, the key interpretive design outcome revolves around “shaping what is inside the visitors when they depart, where other designers focus on shaping what’s outside them when they arrive.”

Design is the #1 determinant of whether a product, service or experience stands out among the competition.  Design mindfulness is prevalent today among so many endeavours. The greatest business success story of this generation is the Apple tale of design driven solutions. Starbuck’s wildly successful creation of a third place is based on ramping up the sensory atmosphere of coffee enjoyment - essentially changing a commodity, product and service transaction into an experience. Innovation by design is the priority buzzword among a range of companies in a slew of industries. Van Matre’s book brings interpretive planning into the fold of those embracing the power of design.


Book design radiates with joy

Steve Van Matre has accomplished a book design coup – it sparkles as a reading experience.  He has accomplished the pursuit of WOW with the smooth feel, generous airy layout, engaging graphics, and colourful font face diversity. These elements combined with the progressive rainbow colour framing of every page makes for a delightful read-it almost radiates with joy.  The energetic style of verbal and visual presentation is memorable. The element of reinforcement is cleverly employed throughout the book.  There are many examples of “walk the talk” interpretive design principles embedded in the book. This encourages a game of trying to decipher the design decision- making process behind different components of the book.

You are set up for a friendly, comfortable read but what is being presented is not conducive for a quick and easy skim. The stimulating flow of thoughts is punctuated with design challenges and exercises - more tango than waltz.  It appeals to feelings as well as intellect -a running test of sorts to see if you are granting yourself time to be “out of your mind.”

You can’t help but want to improve your interpretive design skills as the anticipated impact of a job well done oozes from every page. Hopeful passion is pressed into every sentence. The care and attention to detail is evident from the decades of observation and contemplation brought to bear by the author.

“Interpretation is not so much experience explained as explanation experienced.”
“We remember what we feel and feel what we remember.”

The book is interspersed with red bolded sentences like:

I refer to them as magical mind mirrors - perplexing perspective word reversals that constantly stop you in your tracks and tickle the brain cells.

A line in the book says, “ interpretive designers are like archeologists, digging for lost treasure.” Each time I picked up the book and re-read another passage, I felt this way, as something new would be unearthed. I admit I get exhausted every time as I keep digging and discovering more insight - somewhat reminiscent of the visitor experience moving from awe to aha.

“ Interpretive design is planning enriching interactions that will produce intended outcomes.”

If there are any criticisms, it would relate to the complexity of content in certain sections where an increased application of using examples would boost clarity. There are three types of public treasure sites recognized: preservation, collection, and recognition places. The design challenges throughout the book do reflect that variety of settings. However, the complex interpretive matrix process has been illustrated only by using a preservation place example. To enhance the reader’s understanding, it would have been exemplary to have incorporated 2 more interpretive matrices for a representative collection and recognition place. Concrete examples would also ease one’s comprehension of the listed universal strands of cultural and natural processes.


What distinguishes your place

Many places can offer buildings, history, water features, woods, trails, and picnic tables but interpretive design excellence determines what distinguishes your place and can maximize the visitors’ chance to benefit from that uniqueness.  Design deals with soul. Offering a differentiated life experience to visitors helps to establish a place’s value. 

The concept of differentiation is a cornerstone for the tourism attraction industry. As tourism visitation is impacting our heritage treasures, it is instructive to understand the prevailing ethos.  From my tourism industry experience, I have seen a pervasive trend for the successful companies to strive for a more effective connection of place with their customer, by moving from delivering a service to staging an experience.  Our public jewels can be positioned this way and stay mission driven.

In the marketing field there has been momentum building around not just communicating a brand but to experiencing a brand. Some say we have moved from trademarks to lovemarks. To attain such a bond means success in interpretive design.  “People value what they understand, and love what they feel.“  The author’s premise is that to love something is to cherish it, support it, and return to it. The interpretive goal is to experientially guide the visitor in moving from value to love in their dance with a place. Van Matre’s book will guide you down this path.

“ Interpretive design is planning enriching interactions that will produce intended outcomes.”

Do you relish yourself as a change agent?


Contact us  if you have an interest in receiving more inspiration about how to plan, design, and coach mission-driven, user- generated, experience creation.

Purchase options for Interpretive Design and the Dance of Experience can be found here.

Note: The Institute for Earth Education offers workshops on Interpretive Design the Dance of Experience and further information on purchasing books or organizing a workshop can be requested at info@ieetree.org


References
 

Peters, Tom. Re-Imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age. 2003, ISBN 0-7894-9647-X, Dorling Kindersley Limited.

Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting Our Heritage. 1957, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press

Van Matre, Steve. Interpretive Design And The Dance Of Experience. 2009, ISBN:978-0-917011-23-8, Institute for Earth Education.